For those who think the end of the world via an apocalyptic alien takeover is a stretch of a prediction, Brenda Shaughnessy offers an appealing compromise in her newest collection, The Octopus Museum (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019). While an invasion of Earth isn’t unavoidable for Shaughnessy, which she presents in the form of the Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords (or COO), The Octopus Museum is a careful mixture of the real and the imaginary that aims to show the reader that any possible takeover will only occur as the final stage of humanity’s undoing, as it is a process we have set in motion by our own hand.
The Octopus Museum’s “goal,” if it could even be called that, is to get the reader to look at themselves from a distance as objectively as possible. To do this, Shaughnessy begins with the most familiar and conventional part of any collection: the table of contents. Titled “Visitor’s Guide to the OM [Octopus Museum] Exhibits,” each section of the collection is referred to as an “exhibition space,” whether it is a gallery, permanent or temporary collection, or retrospective, resulting in the kind of immersive reading experience that characterizes The Octopus Museum as a whole. To me, this felt like a challenge to contemporary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is known for rebelling against what he calls, in Ways of Curating, “[t]he current vogue for the idea of curating […which] stems from a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, raw data, processed information, images, disciplinary knowledge and material products that we are witnessing today.”
By telling the reader “The OM has five exhibition spaces, with another three currently under construction”—a line that feels like a hidden, secondary epigraph to the collection—Shaughnessy frames poetry as an evolution that requires one to look backwards and forwards simultaneously. Thus, just as something has been processed and neatly framed for posterity, the next instant in the present has already become the most recent moment of the past, like in “There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)”, where the speaker ruminates on an ambiguous yet suspiciously present-sounding past:
Before, we could always count on at least a heel or two of gluten loaf, but it
depends on which cruelty-full Before you’re thinking of. Me, I’m thinking of all the
Befores, like all old people who have no future.
Of similar significance is the first poem in the collection, the intriguingly titled “Identity & Community (There Is No “I” in “Sea”)”, which begins with some of the best opening lines I’ve read:
I don’t want to be surrounded by people. Or even one person. I don’t want to
always be alone.
The answer is to become my own pet, hungry for plenty in a plentiful place.
There is no true solitude, only only.
The poem gives the reader a compressed version of what they will find further on in The Octopus Museum, namely a glimpse into the apocalyptic present. Shaughnessy dispels familiar dystopian ideals, according to which the end of the world will occur literally and with a Hollywood-level of pyrotechnics and panic. In poems like “Irreversible Change” not only have the seeds of chaos already been sown, but they have already produced fruit in our time. Thus, passages in the poem speak not so much in warning of a time to come as much as they feel like the last gasp of warning right before the point of no return, as Shaughnessy tells us:
So much art was destroyed looking for more power. Paintings hooked up to
electrodes, landscapes with visible landmines. Some of the better pottery bombed
for phosphorescence, the blaze in their glaze. Dancers were electrocuted by
their choreographers’ brains taken out for experiments that yielded only dead
The carefulness with which Shaughnessy arranged both the sections of The Octopus Museum and the poems themselves within these sections reveals further subtleties in the form of hints and even little inside jokes that were left for the reader to discover. The most powerful example of this was the inclusion of “Are Women People?”, a poem that is worthy of several pages of discussion alone, in the section “Permanent Collection: Archive of the Pre-Existing Conditions”, pointing to a more satirical type of social commentary that underlies The Octopus Museum’s dystopian theme, which can be said about the collection in its entirety.
Yet Shaughnessy’s ominousness is not without its own sort of delightful and even entertaining dark humour, which is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the case of the aforementioned the Cephalopod Octopoid Overlords, who “renamed [themselves] the CEO (Cephalopod Electro-Overlords) — / dropping the Octopus nickname as an outdated, human-centric, offensive term / that excluded squid, nautiluses, and other potential commanding officers and / executives-in-training.” Shaughnessy mixes allegory and sci-fi to the point where one begins to question what’s real and (im)possible. At the same time, she makes the reader confront the fact that subjects like parenting and motherhood (“The Home Team”), womanhood and autonomy (“Bakamonotako”), and racism and inclusivity (“There Was No Before (Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles)”) have their place in the speculative genre, that sci-fi explores such serious and often difficult topics, that it is not solely fun and excitement.
As much as The Octopus Museum asks questions about our current state of existence and the consequences of our actions, it is also, first and foremost, an exploration of who we are, as individuals and as a society, for it is by beginning with the unit that one can then build outwards and understand the bigger problem at hand. Here, Shaughnessy’s thoughts are a bit more ambiguous for although they are not as condemning as her visions of what awaits us, they also clearly convey a sense of hesitation and even a kind of imposter-syndrome that the speaker of the collection seems to bear on the part of the reader. Often these feelings manifest themselves as literal alienation, whether it is the interest in origin in “Gift Planet” (“I fantasize about outer space as if I have some relation to it besides being an animal / in its zoo. No visitors. No matter how far I travel on earth I wind up sitting in / rooms”) or the almost resigned pessimism that tends to appear in the darkest of times, as in “Sel de la Terre, Sel de Mer” (“We know we are aliens in too deep, but we’ll never admit we / don’t belong”).
It is, ultimately, in the form of the speaker-writer in “Nest” that I found the closest semblance to an answer to the worries that inevitably arose over the course of reading what is an acutely sensitive and witty collection. For although The Octopus Museum is more of a summary report of where we are now than it is a proposed trajectory for the future, Shaughnessy shows that there is comfort to be found in the void that we often find terrifying, creating a kindred spirit in the speaker for the reader to relate to as they wonder:
Why am I up here
writing in the woods when my family needs me
if all I’m doing is failing to kill innocent wasps
and writing this, this poem I’ll never really finish.
This poem I stole from my fear, my endless fear.
I don’t want to find the wasp dead. I want it to live,
to find its way outside this poem, away from me
and the fear I know will find me again.